In recent months, A-B and rival giant Miller Brewing Co. have begun placing gay-specific, brand-specific ads in national gay publications. The trend follows years of the brewers' laying groundwork by placing ads in local gay media to support AIDS awareness, Gay Pride festivals and the Gay Games.
Now the brewers are starting to do what they do best-selling beer, without sponsorship strings-to the consumers they've courted for years. Still trying to warm not-always-rosy relations with gay consumers, the beer marketers see the target as a national niche instead of merely a specialty target forgotten the morning after Gay Pride Day.
PART OF THE CULTURE
Malt beverages and alcoholic spirits have long "played a significant role in our culture," said Harry A. Taylor, publisher of Out. Miller parent "Philip Morris and Anheuser-Busch are large mass-marketers, and there hasn't always been a vehicle that companies like that would be comfortable advertising in," Mr. Taylor noted.
"Many surveys show that gay consumers drink about twice as much as straight consumers overall," said Earl Nissen, Coors Brewing Co. corporate relations manager. "And gay consumers are extremely brand loyal-they like to see who's buying ads in their local press."
Miller's foray into national gay-specific brand advertising is simply part of a long-term trend, said Tammy Katz, brand director of Miller Lite beer.
"The print campaign signals that we're serious and committed, but it's not a dramatic departure from what we've been doing with consistent, focused gay marketing since the '80s," Ms. Katz said.
Gay media like Out and The Advocate are "the most effective and efficient way to reach this target," she said.
BREWERIES ARE SUPPORTIVE
"All three U.S. breweries have been very supportive when it comes to gay and AIDS programs," Mr. Taylor said. "They've taken the correct approach as mass marketers to integrating their product into a new consumer segment.
"If you're going to ask for loyalty, the target wants to see you giving back to its community," he said.
Getting the message out is the priority; subtlety, for now, is not.
In April editions of Out, The Advocate and Round Up, Miller broke Lite beer ads with sex appeal-like the mainstream versions-by Leo Burnett USA, Chicago, as part of its "Life is good" campaign. The Advocate also carries A-B's Bud Light "labels" ad by DDB Needham Worldwide, Chicago.
"Our focus group feedback was very positive," said Ms. Katz.
These approaches aren't universally welcomed.
"The gay community is a whole new demographic animal, and it's not a very cohesive community," said Mr. Nissen, founder of a gay/lesbian employee resource group at Coors.
"A gay-specific ad is very risky in some ways-I'd like to see something more positive and affirming than beautiful bodies and labeling," he said.
Coors and Miller have spent years trying to counter public perceptions of homophobic corporate culture.
Philip Morris Cos. came under fire for financially supporting Sen. Jesse Helms (R., N.C.), an outspoken opponent of the gay community, and Coors was accused of discriminatory hiring practices.
Today Coors has gay-friendly corporate policies, Mr. Nissen said. "We're trying to get the word out, but [Coors employee] benefits aren't something you'll see in a Coors Light beer ad."
COORS ADS POSSIBLE
Coors doesn't have plans for gay-specific marketing but is open to placing standard brand ads in gay media, Mr. Nissen said.
Labatt Breweries of Canada's gay-specific Labatt Ice beer campaign, nearing the end of a three-month test period in Toronto gay print media, uses images including a street sign on a block popular in Toronto's gay community.
In a plan to target diverse multicultural audiences, Lowe SMS, Toronto, developed the ad rather than Labatt's chief agency Ammirati Puris Lintas, Toronto, said Randy VanDerStarren, Lowe's senior VP-group account director.
The Toronto test is going "gangbusters," Mr. VanDer-Starren said, possibly paving the way for an expanded campaign this year.
But Labatt isn't likely to take the gay campaign across Canada or into the U.S., he said.
One unusual high-profile beer campaign actually made it to TV in the U.K. last year. But Guinness Brewing's humorous spot by Ogilvy & Mather, London, depicting a gay couple getting ready for work, wasn't intended to lure a particular market segment, said a spokesman.
In fact, Guinness measured no positive or negative effect on beer sales after the spot's extensive publicity last summer, he said.
PART OF THE SCENE
"It wouldn't make sense to take a [$19 million] media campaign for such a small niche," he said. "Gay commercials have become a familiar part of the scene here in the U.K.
"We're very much mass market, and getting into niche markets at the moment isn't too productive for us," the spokesman said.
Contributing: Michael Wilke and Joanne Ingrassia.